Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Harriet Taylor wants to see “freedom and admissibility” in all areas of human activity replace the system of “privilege and exclusion” (1847)

Harriet Taylor (1807-1858), in an essay dedicated to Queen Victoria, claims that the replacement of “privilege and exclusion” by that of “freedom and admissibility” is “the very most important advance which has hitherto been made in human society”:

Trades and occupations have almost everywhere ceased to be privileges. Thus exclusion after exclusion has disappeared, until privilege has ceased to be the general rule, and tends more and more to become the exception: it now no longer seems a matter of course that there should be an exclusion, but it is conceded that freedom and admissibility ought to prevail, wherever there is not some special reason for limiting them. Whoever considers how immense a change this is from primitive opinions and feelings, will think it nothing less than the very most important advance which has hitherto been made in human society. It is nothing less than the beginning of the reign of justice, or the first dawn of it at least. It is the introduction of the principle that distinctions, and inequalities of rights, are not good things in themselves, and that none ought to exist for which there is not a special justification, grounded on the greatest good of the whole community, privileged and excluded taken together.

This is remarkably the case with respect to Privileges and Exclusions. In every generation, the bulk of mankind imagine that all privileges and all exclusions, then existing by law or usage, are natural, fit and proper, even necessary: except such as happen to be, just at that time, in the very crisis of the struggle which puts an end to them—which rarely happens to more than one set or class of them at a time. But when we take all history into view we find that its whole course is a getting rid of privileges and exclusions. Anciently all was privilege and exclusion. There was not a person or class of persons who had not a line marked round them which they were in no case permitted to overstep. There was not a function or operation in society, sufficiently desirable to be thought worth guarding, which was not rigidly confined to a circumscribed class or body of persons. Some functions were confined to particular families—some to particular guilds, corporations, or societies. Whoever has any knowledge of ancient times knows that privilege and exclusion was not only the general rule in point of fact, but that nothing else was in accordance with the ideas of mankind. Whenever any action or occupation, private or public, was thought of, it seemed natural to everybody that there should be some persons who were allowed to do the action or follow the occupation, and others who were not. People never thought of inquiring why it should be so, or what there was in the nature of the particular case to require it. People seldom ask reasons for what is in accordance with the whole spirit of what they see round them, but only for what jars with that spirit. Even bodily freedom, the right to use one’s own labour for one’s own benefit, was once a privilege, and the great majority of mankind were excluded from it. This seems to the people of our day something monstrously unnatural, to people of former days it seemed the most natural of all things. It was very gradually that this was got rid of, through many intermediate stages, of serfage, villenage &c. Where this did not exist, the system of castes did: and that appears profoundly unnatural to us, but so profoundly natural to Hindoos that they have not yet given it up. Among the early Romans fathers had the power of putting their sons to death, or selling them into slavery: this seemed perfectly natural to them, most unnatural to us. To hold land, in property, was throughout feudal Europe the privilege of a noble. This was only gradually relaxed and in Germany there is still much land which can only be so held. Up to the Reformation to teach religion was the exclusive privilege of a male separate class, even to read the Bible was a privilege: Those who lived at the time of the Reformation and who adopted it, ceased to recognize this case of privilege and exclusion, but did not therefore call in question any others. Throughout the Continent political office and military rank were exclusive privileges of a hereditary noblesse, till the French revolution destroyed these privileges. Trades and occupations have almost everywhere ceased to be privileges. Thus exclusion after exclusion has disappeared, until privilege has ceased to be the general rule, and tends more and more to become the exception: it now no longer seems a matter of course that there should be an exclusion, but it is conceded that freedom and admissibility ought to prevail, wherever there is not some special reason for limiting them. Whoever considers how immense a change this is from primitive opinions and feelings, will think it nothing less than the very most important advance which has hitherto been made in human society. It is nothing less than the beginning of the reign of justice, or the first dawn of it at least. It is the introduction of the principle that distinctions, and inequalities of rights, are not good things in themselves, and that none ought to exist for which there is not a special justification, grounded on the greatest good of the whole community, privileged and excluded taken together.

About this Quotation:

Tucked away in an appendix at the back of volume 21 of the 33 volume Collected Works of J.S. Mill are the small number of essays written by Harriet Taylor. She is important both for her own ideas and for the influence she exerted on her companion. This piece is taken from a letter or essay she wrote and dedicated to Queen Victoria on the need to abolish all forms of “privilege and exclusion” and to replace it with a system based upon “freedom and admissibility”. What is also interesting in this passage is how she puts this demand into a broader historical context where the demand for the freedom of women is seen in a long march towards liberty which had been going on since the end of feudalism. It is not known how Queen Victoria reacted to this essay.

More Quotations